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Activist Dies on Cusp of Conservation Victory

Roma Armbrust's death comes the day state officials call for buying key wetlands near Oxnard that she worked to save.

October 11, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Roma Armbrust, half of an environmentalist duo that her partner referred to as "grandmas in tennis shoes," died Friday of pancreatic cancer, the same day state conservation officials announced plans to buy Ventura County wetlands she fought hard to preserve.

Armbrust, 76, was diagnosed a month ago and declined quickly, family members said.

Late Thursday, Jean Harris, Armbrust's friend and compatriot in environmental causes, came to her bedside to tell her that the California Coastal Conservancy was moving to acquire 500 acres of rare salt marsh, dunes and estuaries at Ormond Beach.

"She couldn't talk, but she got a big smile on her face," Harris said Friday.

In a brief interview Thursday, Armbrust said the impending purchase was a comfort as she approached death.

"It's remarkable," she said. "It's a dream come true."

On Tuesday, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors had lauded Armbrust's years of work on several civic and environmental causes and presented her with an honorary street sign that will be posted at Ormond Beach. The boardroom was overflowing with people who had worked with Armbrust over the years. Many offered tearful tributes before bending to kiss the retired teacher.

Harris told the gathering that her partner excelled at bringing people of differing viewpoints together in a nonconfrontational way. She called Armbrust "our team leader and our friend."

Even those who did not see eye to eye with Armbrust respected her, Supervisor Judy Mikels said.

"She is soft-spoken and she is never rude," Mikels said. "This is how she gets things done."

Armbrust grew up in Los Angeles and taught elementary grades in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Bill Armbrust, her husband of 55 years. The couple moved to Ventura after their retirement.

Roma Armbrust was involved in several civic organizations, serving as president of the Ventura County chapter of the League of Women Voters and on a county transportation board. She was also active in Democratic politics, her husband said.

But she met her mirror image when she teamed up with Harris in 1989. Both were former teachers. Both were detail-oriented. And both were committed to environmental causes.

Harris had been pushing for preservation of the wetlands for years. Together they formed Ormond Beach Observers, made up of state and county regulators, environmental advocates and concerned residents near the south Oxnard shore. The two women became the group's voice, attending dozens of meetings on the issue.

"We became the little old ladies in tennis shoes going to hearings," Harris said.

The pair's "good-cop, good-cop" style worked well from the start, Harris said.

"We reinforced each other. It really worked wonderfully," she said. "Neither one of us could have done it without the other."

Their goal was to conserve about 750 acres of wetlands that by fluke had survived a century of Southern California development. Ormond Beach remains the last undeveloped stretch of coastal wetlands in the region. Over the years, they fought back several grand development proposals, including construction of thousands of homes, a film studio and even a space-themed amusement park, Harris said.

The Ormond Beach Observers grew into a larger task force appointed by the city of Oxnard, and that was when the California Coastal Conservancy became interested, Harris said.

The conservancy purchased 250 acres last year and is proposing to acquire another 500 acres, reconnecting the wetlands to Mugu Lagoon.

Peter Brand, the conservancy's Ventura County project manager, said Armbrust's persistence and grace under fire were invaluable in moving the purchase forward.

"The preservation of wetlands at Ormond Beach would never have happened without her and her partners in this effort, like Jean Harris," Brand said. "She was a gentlewoman fighting seriously for something she believed in."

At Tuesday's ceremony, Armbrust told her many well-wishers that their work was not done. She struggled with the words, explaining that her medication made it hard to talk.

"I love every one of you and I just want you to carry on. Carry on," she said.

In addition to her husband, Armbrust is survived by two children, Kurt Armbrust and Vikki McCarter, and four grandchildren. There will be no memorial service.

Donations can be made in Armbrust's name to the California Coastal Conservancy, 1330 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612. All funds will be used for the acquisition and restoration of Ormond Beach wetlands, her family said.

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